The culture wars are exploding. There appears to be increasing strife and intolerance toward gay rights at the local school level. What's striking about this piece is that it's young people themselves whose pursuit of acceptance is met with such rank hostility. Rather than demonizing our youth, a civil society engages them in thoughtful deliberation and debate. But these routes are not even considered. I attribute all of this to weak leadership that succumbs to the increasing influence of the religious right.
BTW, check out the just-posted piece on Megachurches that appeared recently in Harper's Magazine. It has bearing on our nation, generally, and thus is worth posting.
June 9, 2005
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY / New York Times
Emboldened by the political right's growing influence on public policy, opponents of school activities aimed at educating students about homosexuality or promoting acceptance of gay people are mounting challenges to such programs, at individual schools, at statehouses and in Congress.
Chief among the targets are sex education programs that include discussions of homosexuality, and after-school clubs that bring gay and straight students together, two initiatives that gained assent in numerous schools over the last decade.
In many cases, the opponents have been successful. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, parents went to court to block a health education course that offered a discussion of homosexuality, while in Cleveland, Ga., gay and lesbian students were barred from forming a high school club of gay and straight youths.
Leading figures on both sides of the fight say they have never seen passions about public school activities run so high. They agree that much of the reason is conservative groups' eagerness to meet their adversaries with a forcefulness more common to modern-day election campaigns.
"The intensity of the culture wars has heated up over the last few years," said J. Michael Johnson, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative group that specializes in issues involving religion. "People are becoming more aware that they have rights, and they're feeling more emboldened to defend them. Across the country, people are saying enough is enough."
Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of another conservative group, Liberty Counsel, said: "We're concerned about the effort to capture youth through indoctrination into the homosexual lifestyle. Students are a captive audience, and they are being targeted by groups with that as an agenda."
The growing conflicts are centering on three issues: whether classrooms are an appropriate venue to explore issues of homosexuality, whether schools should lend sanction to extracurricular activities in which gay culture is a focus and whether textbooks that acknowledge homosexual relationships are suitable for younger children.
This spring, in one instance of the conservative response, the Alliance Defense Fund organized its first national Day of Truth for high school students uncomfortable with the National Day of Silence, an event sponsored for nine years by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to protest discrimination in schools.
"We needed to present a counter or Christian perspective," said Mr. Johnson, whose event attracted participation by 340 schools. Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of the gay education network, said more than 3,700 junior and senior high schools took part in his group's event.
Mr. Jennings and other gay rights leaders say the growing opposition to their efforts is in keeping with a predictable trend set off by disputes over issues like same-sex marriage that are playing out on the national stage.
"These are a bunch of people who very much want to remove from public discourse any mention of homosexuality," said James Esseks, litigation director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They don't want any mention of the fact that gay people exist."
The struggles have broken out everywhere.
Last month in Montgomery County, Md., a parents' group, alarmed because revisions to a health education course for 8th and 10th grades included a discussion of homosexuality and a video that demonstrated how to use a condom, went into federal court and gained a restraining order to halt them. The county school board then voted 7 to 1 to eliminate the amended program, six months after unanimously approving it.
Conservative groups applauded the board's vote as a victory for religious conviction, and described the litigation strategy as a model for school districts across the country.
"This was huge," said Robert H. Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, which seeks to apply biblical principles to public policy.
Another battle involved student journalists at East Bakersfield High School in California. They wrote a series of articles for the school newspaper this spring that explored gay issues through student experiences. But the principal, John Gibson, citing concern for the safety of students who had been interviewed and photographed, would approve publication only if their identities were withheld.
The journalists refused and, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school district on May 19, seeking an emergency order that would have allowed the articles to be published in the final issue of the year, six days later. A county judge declined to overrule Mr. Gibson, saying the issues were too important for an instant ruling.
Christine Sun, a lawyer for the A.C.L.U., said that if Mr. Gibson had been motivated only by concern for student safety, "his actions are completely illogical."
"These kids were already 'out' on campus," Ms. Sun said of the articles' subjects. "To the extent there is any threat against them, neither they nor their parents were notified by the principal or anyone from law enforcement."
Mr. Gibson did not respond to a call seeking comment.
The war is being waged at the state level as well. Alabama lawmakers are considering a bill that would bar state spending on books or other materials that "promote homosexual lifestyle." Oklahoma passed a resolution last month calling on public libraries to restrict children's access to books with a gay theme. Louisiana is considering a similar measure.
Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan free-speech advocacy group, said gay rights issues involving public schools had become a litmus test to many religious conservatives.
"They feel the public schools are getting ahead of the country," Mr. Haynes said. "They believe the schools are imposing a view of homosexuality that offends their faith and is not consistent with where we are as a country."
Two members of the Southern Baptist Convention have prepared a "resolution on homosexuality in public schools," to be introduced at the denomination's annual gathering this month. The resolution implores Baptist churches to determine whether schools in their area have "homosexual clubs or curricula or programs" and, if so, to encourage parents to remove their children from the schools.
"Churches and parents need to be aware of what's going on," said Bruce N. Shortt, a Houston lawyer who is a co-author of the resolution.
After-school clubs known as Gay-Straight Alliances, which draw together students to share common experiences and concerns, have become a particular source of conflict. The issue has roiled a number of communities, including Ashland, Ky.; Klein, Tex.; Hanford, Calif.; and Cleveland, Ga., where a small group of gay and lesbian students were denied permission this year to form an alliance at White County High School.
Federal law often frowns on administrators' barring some clubs while allowing others, but Cleveland school officials told the students that they would abolish all after-school organizations before allowing a gay-straight alliance.
"They're just scared of change," said Kerry Pacer, 17, who is leading the students' effort. "We live in the Bible Belt. Anything that threatens change, people here don't want that."
Complaints over the students' endeavor led State Senator Nancy Schaefer to introduce a bill that would have required a parent's written permission before a student could join any after-school club. The legislature later deferred to the Georgia Department of Education, which is now considering a modified approach allowing each local school board to develop its own policy.
Ms. Schaefer dismisses the compromise as too weak.
"I just don't feel like homosexual clubs have anything to do with readin', writin' and 'rithmetic," she said.